A new type of robot being developed will make it easier to detect drugs, weapons, explosives and illegal immigrants concealed in cargo containers.
Dubbed the 'cargo-screening ferret' and designed for use at seaports and airports, the device is being worked on at the University of Sheffield with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The ferret will be the world's first cargo-screening device able to pinpoint all kinds of illicit substances and the first designed to operate inside standard freight containers.
It will be equipped with a suite of sensors that are more comprehensive and more sensitive than any currently employed in conventional cargo scanners.
Recent advances in both laser and fibre optic technology now make it possible to detect tiny particles of different substances. The EPSRC-funded project team is developing sensors which incorporate these technologies and that are small enough to be carried on the 30cm-long robot, in order to detect the specific 'fingerprint' of illegal substances at much lower concentrations than is now possible.
When placed inside a steel freight container, the ferret will attach itself magnetically to the top, then automatically move around and seek out contraband, sending a steady stream of information back to its controller.
Current cargo-screening methods rely on a variety of separate methods, such as the use of sniffer dogs and external scanners for detecting explosives and drugs and carbon dioxide probes and heartbeat monitors to detect a human presence.
Cargo scanners currently in use at seaports and airports only generate information on the shape and density of objects or substances. The ferret, however, will be able to provide information on what they actually consist of as well.
"It's essential we develop something which is simple to operate and which Border Agents can have total confidence in," says Dr Tony Dodd, who is leading the project. "The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and so pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed."
Working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing within two years, with potential deployment within around five years.
The 3-year project 'Cargo Screening Ferret' began in October 2008 and is receiving total EPSRC funding of nearly £732,000.
The project also involves the University of Glasgow, Loughborough University, City University London and defence and security specialists Qinetiq.
The idea for the project emerged from an event organised by EPSRC, the Home Office Scientific Development Branch and the UK Borders Agency.
The ferret will offer major advantages in combating human trafficking. Currently, it is very difficult to detect people hidden in freight containers (e.g. the use of X-rays is prohibited due to the harm the radiation could do to anyone concealed there). Sensors on board the ferret will be able to detect tiny traces of carbon dioxide which indicate the presence of humans concealed in the containers.
Another key benefit is that the ferret will reduce the need for customs and security officials to enter or unpack freight containers, which is time-consuming and may expose officers to danger or possible contamination by harmful substances.
By combining two different types of sensor (laser and fibre optic-based), the ferret will lead to confidence in detection being considerably improved.
The above story is based on materials provided by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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